Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Like Stradivarius

It think it was Ron Edwards that started the analogy of role-playing to musical jam session. It’s not a perfect analogy (none of them are), but thinking about it can help us learn to be better game designers.

When musicians get together and jam, they have a few things: an instrument (voice counts, of course), skill with the instrument, understanding of the part that the instrument plays in the style of music being created. That is to say that musicians who seriously jam are prepared for the experience. Even then, being as prepared as they can be, a really good jam session is hard work for all involved.

Now look at role-playing. The majority of the role-playing rules written assume that the players come together prepared, as if it were a jam session. But people are very ill prepared for roleplaying. No one has taught players the correct method for contributing to a collaborative story. No one has told them what their parts are. No one has taught them to trust their secret, creative selves to others. No, the opposites of these things are true. Our society (I speak for Americans here, but I’m guessing for most others as well) beats the creative urge out of kids by the time they get to high school. Kids who tell stories are geeky or nerdy and condemned to a life of ridicule. Even those that manage to keep in touch with the creative forces within are taught to keep it to themselves. They’re trained to trust no one with their ideas and vision. We also teach our children to be competitive. To strive for dominance. To collaborate only as far as it gets them ahead.

The current state of the role-playing industry is essentially telling a group of average folks to have a jam session without any instruments or instruction.

So what do game designers do to help? Generally, they provide lots of information about the one thing that players don’t need help with: imagined people and places. Instead of giving people tools and instruction to help them make stories together, they give them homework. They vent their frustrated novelist urges into encyclopedic sourcebooks and charge people through the nose for them. Those untrained jamming musicians without instruments? We’ve just told them that they have to make do without, and that they can only “jam” to a single tune.

In short, designers of games are going about the process all wrong. If we want players to jam, to improvise using their own creativity, we need to show them how to imagine with a group of other creators. We need to teach them how to share the limelight. We need to teach them what to contribute and when. We need the rules we write to be the like their instruments: that make clear their parts and enable creativity to flow.

My suggestion is that we should change the way we think about rules. If something is in the game that doesn’t help players jam, it doesn’t belong. Don't try to tell people what to imagine. Tell them how to imagine better together, no matter what the subject. Give them a well crafted instrument and the training to use it and they'll make the music all on their own.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Game-chef Status, Plus a Disclaimer

So here we are not quite halfway through this year's Iron Game Chef competition. I am not so pleased to report that I have bitten off more than I can chew. I'm down a design road that requires me to come up with dozens of cards (many of them octagonal) before Sunday night. Oh, yeah, and I'm sick too. Things don't look good for Invincible Armada. Maybe the Spaniards are going to win this time.

Anyway, I'm working away on that, and chomping at the bit to get back to Gallant. That's why my presence here is diminished this week. And Vincent's site seems to be down, which is sad. I've pretty much stopped trying to wade through all of the posts at the Forge and just read his blog instead.

So this is funny. In a fit of head cold induced surfing, I visited Cumberland Games just now. It's a fun little site with some true gems. One gem is Pokethulu. A game that features shining dodecahedra in which the monsters are captured. So I'd like to point out, for the record, that the name of my blog has nothing to do with Pokethulu. I came up with the name as a result of a lifelong unhealthy fascination with the dodecahedron, specificly in the form of the seldom-used twelve-sided die. I do, however, wholeheartedly recommend Pokethulu to any and all who would read it (heck, maybe even play it--I never have, but the system looks functional to me). Besides, it's free. And check out the rest of the site while you're there.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star Wars and the Macbeth Principle

I hate Macbeth. I view it as a steaming turd in the flower bed of Shakespeare. Why? Because it is a story of the tragic fall of a character that we have no reason to like in the first place. In the second scene we are told that Macbeth is a great guy, but from the moment he walks on stage he behaves like a prick who is easily bullied by his evil wife.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy has the same flaw. We are supposed to care about Anakin. I know this not because Episodes I & II set him up as a great guy, but because in Episode IV, Obi Wan told us that he was a great guy. In Episode I he is an annoying little kid. In Episode II he is a whiny teenager. In Episode III (don't worry, no big spoilers--as if you don't know how it turns out anyway) Lucas tries to give us the impression of a decent guy in the first half. He does an OK job, but it isn't enough. Ask anybody: people like Anakin a lot more as Vader as they ever do as himself.

What does all of this have to do with gaming? Well, it teaches us a valuable lesson about constructing stories. You can't get powerful thematic situation about a character that nobody cares about. Now I know that not everyone is looking for thematic situations in play (thematic in the Ron Edwards sense). But it's really a good idea for all stories.

When you start to tell a story, there are people who are the protagonists. You have to establish those people as protagonists in the first act of the story. If you skip this step, no one will care what happens to them. This is part of the problem with having players come up with in-depth backgrounds for their characters: all the cool protagonism is bottled up where on only the player and GM can see it. And such background often fails to align with the SIS of the game.

I think this is why things like Kickers in Sorcerer are such a boon. They make players start their characters in a time of action and decision. A character in flux has a greater chance of proving himself a protagonist than a static character with lots of past behind him.

Anyway, I wouldn't call Episode III a steaming turd. But I wouldn't give it any great praise either. Go see it or not, but learn what you can from the failure of Eps. I-III compared to IV-VI.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

More thoughts on granularity

I think part of why my post on granularity didn't click with folks was that I was mixing apples and oranges.

The way I see it now, the granularity I was talking about is really made up of two mostly independent things:

  • Character Definition Mechanics - which can be rated on a scale from very general to very detailed.

  • Resolution Mechanics - which can be rated on a scale from very centralized to very granular

But this line of reason leads me to think that a game really has a separate scale for each of the five elements of exploration, as defined by Ron and the Forge crew. However, this spills over into my forthcoming context essay, so I won't go into it in detail now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"...Doth not the appetite alter?

A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age" - Much Ado About Nothing II iii

So I was sitting at the table this evening playing in the current Star Hero / Ninja Hero game when I realized that all of the specific combat stuff (autofire rules, martial maneuvers, the state of endurance after waking up from knockout, on so on and on) seemed tedious to me. At first I tried to blame this on the 5th edition rules. But while the new rules did add some complexity to the combat, the system has not changed that much in the last twenty years. The thing that's changed is me.

When I was younger, I got a real kick out of knowing all of the crunchy details of the system. Looking stuff up in the book, talking about the rules during play, all that stuff was a big part of the game and I enjoyed it. Partly I enjoyed it because the game made sense to me on a "realism" (albeit cinematic realism) level. Partly just because being an expert at the system was cool--not real cool, geek cool.

Now I get my geek coolness from other sources--I take my flintlock pistol down to the range and make question-inducing puffs of smoke and fire, for instance. When I sit down at the table to role-play now, I just want to tell a story and I don't want to have to look a bunch of crap up to keep the game moving.

The bummer part is that I feel like a betrayer. The Hero System was loyal to me for so many years. How could I abandon it? It's like that friend that most people have. The one who was a real pal in high school but grew into kind of an annoying prick. You don't really like the guy anymore, but you can't tell him to stop talking to you, because you have history.

Also it makes me sad because I haven't yet found a game that meets my current needs. I'm writing some, of course, but that's hard work. My preferences aren't being met by the new wave of indie games, which mostly either embrace the things that I don't like about old-school games or reject the old ways to the point of turning me off completely.

I can't be the only one, can I? Has anyone else felt this pain? What did you do to make it better? Did you just make your own games, like I'm trying to?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Rules Granularity = Creativity Vacuum?

Some games have very broad and general rules. Others have very granular rules--by which I mean that there are specific little rules for lots of different things. This applies also (and maybe particularly) to character definition, i.e. what's written on the character sheet.

The level of granularity that you prefer is a matter of personal choice, and isn't the only factor determining whether you like a game (not by a long shot). However, I think that the extremes of the spectrum can be bad.

Overly granular rules systems can, in my experience, kill creativity. How? Well, if there is a specific rule or character element that is defined for a particular action and your character doesn't qualify, you can take the action. Also, if lots of specific rules exist in a system and you don't see the one for what you want to do, you might be discouraged from trying.

Overly general rules systems can stymie creativity too. If the rules or character elements are very generic, you may find yourself struggling to decide what to do. I've often had players get stuck when the rules say to pick any descriptor for something. The players want a list or something to help get the creativity going.

So a game must have rules and character elements that are specific enough to spark the creativity of the players without being so narrow that they stifle it. There is actually a fairly wide range of possible rules systems in this range. The preference of the designer should dictate where in that range a given system falls.

I'm designing games

So I'm working on some games of my own--did I mention?

Anyway, because my Web Fu isn't very strong and my laziness is, I'll be using this blog to talk about my game designs as they happen instead of putting discussion boards on my basically non-existent site (

Anyone and everyone is welcome to comment on things I put here. If you're here just to talk games in general, that's cool too. To help you filter what to read, I will tag my design-specific posts with the name of the game in square brackets--Forge style.

Here's a list of the things that are brewing, in brief. In case you're interested:

  • Gallant is my game of swashbuckling adventure. It's at the top of the queue right now, and is receiving the most attention from me.
  • Musha Shugyo is my game of wandering ronin in quasi-Japan. It's all about choosing what to risk to get things done, and focuses on walking the path of honor when that path is fraught with peril.
  • I have this pirate game in the back of my head that has no name yet. It has no centralized GM and may or may not focus on desperation on the high seas. It's the one I'm most excited about, but also the one that is the hardest for me to make progress on.

There are others floating in my brain. But I won't worry about them until they rear up and demand attention.

Anyway, just thought you should know.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Skill-based systems gone bad

As with many things, skill-based RPGs began with the best of intentions. I wasn't there when they started, but I imagine it happening as a reaction to class-based systems. In old-school class-based RPGs, there were an awful lot of things left unsaid about a character, mechanically speaking. The race/class combo pretty much dictated only combat efficacy and, to a lesser extent, dungeon-delving skills. Anything else that you wanted your character to be able to do was up to you and GM to work out.

Lots of solutions came about to fix this problem, culminating in the ultimate skill-based system, GURPS, where fighting skills and other skills exist on equal footing. So what's wrong with this approach? Well, nothing, at first. The problem is that, whenever there is doubt about what skill should be used for an action in the vast majority of skill-based systems, the answer is to create a new skill. Skill inflation causes problems on multiple levels.

Here's an example. D&D 3e boiled skills down to a fairly manageable list, but it made skill points into a very precious commodity: they are received in very limited quantities for most classes, and the whole cross-class skills thing makes them even more scarce. This isn't so bad if you assume that a given character only needs a few key skills to supplement her class abilities and feats. But when you set people loose with the OGL, they start making skills up for every damn thing. When I played in an Oriental Adventures game (using the Rokugan setting) I was appalled to find that they added Tea Ceremony, and GO to the list as skills. Yes, in real life these things are skills that take a significant time-investment to be good at, but in the game, they are on a totally different scope than being able to persuade people or take their stuff.

When you create a character in a system like that, you end up in a crunch. You don't want to short the skills that you know will be important to your role in the game, but you want to have all the skills that fill out your character concept.
The Hero System tries to fix this by making "background" skills less expensive to get than skills that are more effective in the core of play. But then they fall into traps just like anybody else. For example, if you want to be a black belt in a particular martial art, the Ultimate Martial Artists advises you to buy a knowledge skill that applies to the art, and potentially a separate professional skill to be an instructor, and buy a perk called "black belt".

Part of the problem here is that designers are trying to design systems that model reality. They think that ff something is hard to do in real life, it should be hard to have your character be able to do in the game. This is the biggest red herring of character design systems. I have never seen a game that models reality even slightly accurately. And I don't think I'd like a system that succeeded in doing so. The trick with a game is not to seriously trigger a "bogus" response from players. Any amount of unrealistic stuff is fine up to the point where the players don't buy it anymore.

Vincent Baker says on this post:

Never, ever [design a mechanic] as a model of reality...
...Unless it's the central, thematically charged reality your game is to comment on. Like, Sorcerer's demon rules are a model of the reality of abusive relationships. Dogs in the Vineyard's town creation rules are a model of the reality of communities in breakdown.

I would add that if you want to simulate some reality with your rules, simulate the fictional reality of the genre of your game. But whatever you do, don't ever assume that the right way to model a skill system is to systematically catagorize the whole range of human skill and ability into a huge list. It will break your game. Guaranteed

Thursday, May 12, 2005

How characters are conceived

Judd said:

Generally, the GM says, "Here is the game's concept."
The player says, "Here's what I'd like to play."
And then you are off to the races, seeing what is important in the character's back story, what kind of characters they create, their angle on the original idea."

This brings up a great point: how do players arrive at characters to play? And more importantly, how do systems make the process easy or hard?

My current game is a hybrid space opera/wuxia game played in the Hero System. Lyle, the GM put forth this idea for a gameto us, told us how many points to use and cut us loose. We ended up with three characters, each from a different genre: Mike made a pilot/gambler who fits the mold of heroic-human-level space opera characters. Henry made a Kung Fu fighter on the level of Bruce Lee--touch human guy with some exrtaordinary fighting. I made a full-on wuxia character inspired by House of Flying Daggers. Mike had trouble thinking what to do with all of his points. Henry's character eased in right at the limit. I was scrounging for points. We all understood the game to be different and made characters at different power levels as a result. The Hero System leaves all of the character scoping and details up to the GM and players to work out. And it often doesn't work. It's an extreme case because the system allows for so much diversity of character.

The opposite extreme is something like White Wolf's World of Darkness. Your choices in making a character are extremely limited depending on the game that the group chooses. If the GM wants to play a Werewolf game, players have a very narrow scope of characters to choose from.

I used to think that the WoD way was bad and the Hero way was good. But I've come to appreciate that sometimes having a lot of choices as a player is a bad thing. A coherent game needs direction, and limiting the types of characters that can participate in the story is a decent way to get some. Not the only way by any meansm but a good way.

Look at something like Dogs in the Vineyard. On the surface its a game with a very limited range of characters, but the diversity of individual dogs seems quite wide. Sure, they're all dogs, but they can have a variety of backgrounds, motivations, levels of faith, on and on.

Sometimes limiting the scope of players leads to unhappy gamers. Particuarly if the GM doesn't tell the players before hand that he has something specific in mind for the gameand the characters that they come up with don't fit his vision. Much badness to be had there.

Are there other techniques that folks have experienced that games use to guide the selection of characters? Is this something that you feel works better when provided by the game or when it's worked out between the GM and players?

It's all about character

For me anyway. While we're waiting for me to finish my essay about context, I'm going to delve into characters a bit.

I should preface all of this by saying that I understand some folks don't think that an RPG needs to revolve around characters. All I can say is: sure, but it does for me. Your mileage may vary.

In my mind, the charcter is the input device that players use to play the game. It's the joystick of tabletop RPGs. Games can, of course, give the player resources and techniques for affecting the SIS that are not directly related to the character. But I think it's much better that everything is filtered through the character.

Anyway, I've got some thoughts brewing for a few posts about characters, but please post your thoughts about characters in RPGs as comments on this post. I would like to get a real discussion going.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Look at Powergaming

Only once has anyone called me a powergamer to my face. And I took it badly. It's a term generally considered to be insulting in gaming circles--but it's also a term that is ill defined and essentially meaningless.

Most folks think that a powergamer is someone who maximizes his character to optimize in-game (usually combat) effectiveness. But does anyone think about the reason for the optimization?

In traditional RPGs, the player has only one way to affect the game--through his character. So a player that wants to be able to direct some events during play (particularly if the GM is adversarial) has no recourse but to craft his character to be effective in the areas that he wants to have a say in. If we're talking about a game like D&D, where there is a very real risk of random charcter death, it only follows that players will want to bullet-proof their characters.

Sure, there are probably players who want to maximize their characters so that they can disrupt the game, but I don't thik this is the common case. I think most folks are like me: they've had the rules or the GM burn them in the past and so they insulate themselves by carefully deciding what's important for the character an fortifying it accordingly. It is the games and bad GMs that have taught people that this is needed--that they are powerless to control events without some mechanical advantage.

Take a game like Dogs in the Vineyard, where things are mechanically important because you, the player, decide that they are, and there isn't any need for powergaming. Get into something even more kooky like Capes, and you'd be hard pressed to powergame even if you really wanted to.

And anyway, most of the folks who complain about powergamers are GMs who are upset because a player made his character in a way that interferes with the preordained plot that he (the GM) has been working up for months.

Bottom line: give players the power to affect the story in meaningful ways and the issue of powergaming becomes immaterial.

You Have the Floor

At the urging of Vincent (click Lumpley Games in the link list), here is an open forum. If you'd like to talk about a specific topic, put a comment on this post. I'll start posts about specific topics that grab me.

Go nuts!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

What an RPG Needs

Before I get into the various aspects of role-playing systems, it is best to start by talking about what a system is for.

My baseline assumption for this discussion is that role-playing is a social activity and that, at the end of the day, all "rules" used by a particular group are defined (usually implicitly) by the group as a whole. What I mean is that role-playing is done in the context of a social arrangement that may not be explicitly defined, but that can be described by all participants even if each description is different.

That sounds confusing, so lets have an example. Fred, Bob, Jim, and Julie agree to get together and play some D&D. All of the players have experience with role-playing, though not with each other. If you asked each player, "How does one participate in a role-playing game?", each has a different answer, but does have an answer (and most likely thinks that his/her version is the definitive one). Fred thinks that being creative and coming up with compelling drama is what the game is about and that you do that best by having a GM who creates vivid plotlines with lots of interpersonal tension. To Bob, role-playing is lighthearted social time where players crack jokes both in and out of character and generally have fun. Jim sees the game as a collaborative effort where each player contributes not only to his own character's story, but to the game in general. To Jim, the GM is there to keep things fair and to play the adversaries, but not to push a set plot or agenda--the GM should be reactive and in tune with the players' creativity. Julie has found that the best games involve serious mechanical challenges that the player overcome by using the abilities of their characters in the most clever ways possible--she wants to be challenged. [For those of you familiar with the Big Model of the Forge, take note that these example opinions are not meant to have any direct relationship to the creative agendas.]

The point is that everyone comes to the game with their own preconceived notions about what a game is supposed to be like. And, odds are, they wouldn't agree about these notions if they were to actually talk about them, which they won't because each one assumes that everybody knows how you do it. If you are keeping score, what I'm talking about is what Ron Edwards at al at the Forge calls Social Contract, but in the example I'm using it's a broken social contract. Within the social structure of the gaming group is set of things that are The Official Rules of the game. Some will argue that you don't need any rules to role-play, you just trust each other and come up with collaborative fiction. This discussion isn't for those folks. If you can make the idealistic, no rules required RPG work, more power to you. The rest of us need rules.

So bearing in mind that the rules live inside an existing dynamic social arrangement, what purpose do they serve? What do they need in order to work? The answers to these two questions (from my point of view) make up the rest of this article.

The rules guide play. That is over simple, but it's the root answer. The baseline purpose of rule is to tell the players (including the GM) how the game is played: When this thing happens, this player gets to describe this other thing. When this thing happens, roll dice and engage the mechanics to determine the resolution. The GM describes everything that isn't a player action. All the prescriptive rules in a role-playing book tell the players how the game works. The problem is that many games start by assuming that you know how an RPG works, so they don't tell you. Worse yet are the games that assume that you will be able to figure out how the game was designed to be played without it being clearly and explicitly described.

Rules also provide context. There is context between the character and the setting, between the player and the system, between the character and color, and more--all in the rules of the game. This is a subtle variation on prescribing how you play the game. The rules give guidance, often implicitly, about how to role-play a character, or how to describe an even in the game.

So what do RPG rules need to be complete and useful? This question can't be objectively answered, but I'll put out my take on it. Rules must:

  • Provide a method for defining characters that the players use
  • Provide a method for adjudicating actions and interactions in the imaginary continuity of the game (i.e. I want to accomplish this thing, so I need engage these rules in this way)
  • Define which player has authority in given situations (e.g. the GM has complete authority over in-game events that do not directly relate to any PCs)
  • Have clear goals for play and follow through on them

Rules might (and in some cases should):

  • Define rewards for play in keeping with the goals of the game (e.g. Experience points for overcoming challenges in game)
  • Establish color and tone for the stories told using them

There are probably more, but this is enough to be getting on with. Next up: some thoughts about common system approaches that are flawed (IMHO).